Writing Black Women’s Reproductive Lives

Washington, D.C., U.S.A. | June 24th, 2022 | Roe v Wade Supreme Court Reversal Protest: Black Women Speak on Women’s Rights, Healthcare, Choice, Privacy, and Political Action (Johnny Silvercloud/ Shutterstock)

“I woke up feeling strangely happy. It has been accomplished! And I was still alive!” Philippa Duke Schuyler wrote these words in September of 1965, after having a late term abortion in Tijuana. In a last-ditch effort to end her unwanted pregnancy, the well-known concert pianist, composer and journalist, went alone to Mexico for the procedure. Schuyler had run out of options and was nearly out of time. She had been unable to terminate her pregnancy in the United States or during her stay in Europe and like so many Black women before Roe v. Wade—and now after the Supreme Court’s Dobson ruling—she had to risk her life to maintain control over her body.

Schuyler’s abortion may actually be one of the more mundane aspects of her life. Abortions among single Black American professionals in the 1960s were not uncommon—even though they were illegal and not without complications. 1 Schuyler had already traveled the world over as a musician, eventually deciding she wanted to live in Europe where she could conceal her Black ancestry. Her negotiations with whiteness, her rejection of a Black identity, her celebrity, and her social conservatism are just a few of the things that make her a compelling historical figure to study.

Born in 1931, Schuyler grew up in Harlem, where her parents had raised her as a kind of social experiment. Her father, African American conservative journalist George Schuyler, had published theories on Blackness while her white socialite mother, Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, wrote about whiteness and how to raise a biracial child in an interracial marriage. She later managed her daughter’s early career, which had become the primary source of income for their household. In Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler (1995), musicologist Kathryn Talalay pieces together the complexities of Schuyler’s unusual childhood and transnational life. She painstakingly tracked down Schuyler’s past lovers and acquaintances to tell a full story and highlights the moments in which Schuyler struggled with her own identity as a Black woman in the United States; the biography’s tagline reads “The Tragic Saga of Harlem’s Biracial Prodigy.”

I approach the writing of a second biography, tentatively titled Good Women DieRe-Envisioning the Life of Philippa Duke Schuyler, 1931-1967, with very different questions for Schuyler’s archive.2 I am working against many “tragic mulatto” stereotypes that previous accounts of her adult life so often fall into.3 I see Schuyler’s abortion—her quest for bodily autonomy—as a critical starting point from which to understand her character and the context in which she lived.

Black women’s reproductive health and their own agency around sex and sexuality are frequently erased from narratives about their lives. The control of Black women’s fertility is also consistently unacknowledged as central to systems of slavery in the United States or as foundational to racial capitalism. Black women’s sexuality is often obscured as well for the sake of a politics of respectability, yet one that has done little to protect our bodies or our right to control our fertility. It may also be that stories of their reproductive lives are omitted from Black women’s life narratives to provide them some privacy. But not telling these stories means that our perceptions of Black women’s bodily experiences are narrow and our understandings of the complexities of their lives and life choices are limited.

The calculated ways that Schuyler chose to represent herself as a young Black woman are made clearer when reading her own documentations. Her handwritten notes about her abortion are a stunning aspect of her archive, precisely because sex and sexuality are so often kept private. Schuyler documents her own pain during multiple procedures, the misogyny of the male doctors, and her overwhelming fear of being denied her request for medical care. Her notes then lead us to ask: For whom was she writing? Did she imagine she would translate her abortion notes into an article or for a next book?  Who would she want to read these details? And why was there no mention of contact with her mother or communication with friends or family during the several days she was at the clinic?

Concert pianist Philippa Schuyler in 1959 (Wikimedia Commons)

While numerous archived publications, speeches, letters, and notes appear to provide us with a clear sense of who Schuyler was, the existence of one small spiral bound notepad full of handwritten details about her abortion provides another view of Schuyler that is far less mediated than many of the interviews and publications she produced—texts that blurred the boundaries of reality.4 Gradations of Schuyler’s embodied experience as a mixed race African American woman require an understanding of the social context in which she grew up and how her race and gender led her to cross the border to Mexico for an abortion.

Schuyler’s writings in 1965 reveals something we also know to be true of people terminating unwanted pregnancies today: she was elated to have found help after so many weeks searching for medical care. Including this experience in her biography is essential to locating her in a social moment and helping readers understand her as a whole person and sexually active single Black woman with a career. Nothing emerges in her notes about her desire to mother a child. Rather, a previously unmarked audio recording of Schuyler at the Schomburg that I encountered captures her explaining to new age spiritual leader, Joseph Richard Myers, that she wants to get married to have a child for her mother Josephine to raise.5

Although there were many men in Schuyler’s life that she (and her mother) identified as viable suitors, and she was actively looking to settle on one of them, the fact of her blackness invariably informed how they saw her as sexually desirable and in their words, “primitive.” It was precisely this anti-Blackness that may have kept Schuyler from wanting to birth a Black child. Only after her abortion would she inform the man who had gotten her pregnant—Togolese finance minister Georges Apedo-Amah—about what she had done.

Like any good journalist, Schuyler documented conditions in the clinic, multiple operations and her interactions with those around her. She scribbled down information about her initial interaction with Dr. Victor Fuentes. Fluent in Spanish and well-traveled, she recognized his accent as Cuban and made note of his physical appearance. There were also several nurses, who would check on her periodically, sometimes bringing her something to eat in between procedures. None did she form an attachment to while reliant on their care. None did she name in her notes.

Schuyler felt that details like her final phone call to the Clínica Central and the desperate steps she took to secure the appointment, were all worth jotting down. We also learn that she could hear the cries of other young women experiencing what she had on the operating table with the doctor’s tools inside of them. “The feel of sharp things being thrust in me agonized my whole being,” she later writes. She also compared herself to the other women she encountered. She had not cried out, she notes—she refused to. The nurses had strapped her legs down and had her breath in gas that was slow to bring her to unconsciousness. Nowhere does she question her choice to terminate her pregnancy, though as a Catholic she expresses her concern that God may not forgive her and that her missing rosary might be proof of this. Her observations also include the inadequate length of the white hospital robe they’d given the patients to wear, and the sexist comment made by a second doctor. She also writes about the fever that followed the procedures, the profuse bleeding, and her resentfulness that she was there with no one to support her.

Claiming a Black feminist methodology requires that we make ethical decisions about which personal stories to share in and within an ever-changing political context. As scholars, we carry our mothers and sisters and daughters and friends’ abortion stories close as we take seriously the responsibility of writing about Black women’s reproductive lives.

  1. Loretta J. Ross, “African-American Women and Abortion: A Neglected History” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, Vol. 3, Number 2, Fall 1992, p. 281
  2. See the Schuyler Family Papers 1915-1977, the Schuyler Family Photograph Collection and the Philippa Schuyler Portrait Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as well as the Philippa Schuyler Collection at Syracuse University
  3. In her 2021 essay in American Quarterly, “Fine Discords”: Arranging the Archives of Philippa Schuyler, Camille S. Owens writes about the archive of Schuyler’s childhood, scrapbooks by her parents that documented her first 13 years of life. Even as a child, argues Owens, Schuyler asserted herself to wrest some control over her life from her domineering mother.
  4. Talalay, Composition in Black and White; Schuyler’s memoir, Adventures in Black and White (1960)
  5. He explains to her that children need their parents and should not be given away in this way.
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Rachel Afi Quinn

Rachel Afi Quinn is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies and the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston. Her transnational feminist cultural studies scholarship focuses on mixed race, gender and sexuality, black feminist biography, and visual culture in the African diaspora. Her work has been published in The Black Scholar, Small Axe, Latin American & Latinx Visual Culture, Meridians and Burlington Contemporary. Her first book, Being La Dominicana: Race and Identity in the Visual Culture of Santo Domingo was published in 2021 by University of Illinois Press. She is a 2022-2023 Scholar-In-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research In Black Culture. Follow her on Twitter @ametolesi.